On Friday, Germany’s Der Spiegel, working with several other news organizations, dropped a series of stories based on leaked communications sent from various European soccer HQs.
There are some juicy tidbits in there that make fun reading, but the revelations, so-called, didn’t ignite a general furor.
Europe’s biggest teams discussed starting their own super-duper league? FIFA is cozying up to Mideast oil money? The only reason they play those barnstorming games in the United States is because someone received a shipping-container-sized cash deposit?
The upshot of each story: People who make their money off sports are – shocker – only in it for the money.
Journalistically speaking, this is one of the problems with working in the Age of Hacks and Leaks.
There are so many of them flying around these days – the current White House supplies them like meals, three squares a day – that, in order to catch any notice, each new one must be more sordid and more breathlessly told.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I should be offended that Bayern Munich put the squeeze on UEFA, was willing to set the Bundesliga into disarray and upend the German national team, and did it all without sending out a news release telling people it was thinking about doing it.
But I can’t get there. I can’t get anywhere close.
This may be old fashioned, but I understood that if you took the risk of starting a business, it was implied that you had the freedom to run it as you liked. Bayern’s crime here appears to be seeking out more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. Not taking them, mind you. Only seeking them.
(I’m also not sure when capitalism became the dirtiest word in the language. I assume it was around the time everybody forgot what communism looked like up close.)
In the end, UEFA caved and gave the biggest teams in Europe, including Bayern, more guaranteed money, which is what they were after all along. That’s not a scandal. That’s a successful negotiation.
It is a wonder to me that we need constant reminding that our sports leagues and the teams in them are not patrimonies or cultural inheritances we all own a little piece of. You may think that, but try testing the theory in small-claims court.
They’re private companies. Their main function is not winning trophies, but separating people from their disposable income. Trophies only help in that regard.
From the local perspective, this puts you in the mind of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who made one of his infrequent forays into the wild last week to deliver some bad news.
First, there will be three more NHL regular-season games played in Europe next year. I’m not sure what the big idea is here – to convince a few thousand Czechs and Finns who already like hockey that they should like hockey even more?
There isn’t much point to evangelizing inside the church. How about a bunch of games in Brazil and Thailand? That’d be true outreach. It’d also be a financial disaster, but it would be bold.
The bad news was tucked into that announcement. You may have hoped that sense was taking hold at NHL HQ, and that the league was considering sending its best to Beijing 2022.
That’s not looking too hot. Bettman called the Olympic break “terribly disruptive.” Remember how much fun Vancouver 2010 was? Bettman doesn’t remember it that way. Previous Games were “difficult and less than satisfactory.”
That is the NHL’s way of saying, “no one offered to cut us in on the broadcast fees and our owners’ yachts don’t sail themselves.”
As in the Bayern Munich/FIFA/soccer-industrial-complex situation, it’s one thing to be upset at leagues and teams when they do something venal and self-interested.
It is entirely another to be surprised by it. And yet we are constantly pretending surprise when they do it.
Should the NHL go to Beijing? My hand’s up. I think that’s a capital idea.
On the one hand, the NHL is telling us that dragging a couple of teams across the Atlantic to play one sold-out night in Baden-Baden or wherever is a good use of its marketing dollars. On the other, it is saying that participating for two weeks in the world’s most prestigious sporting event at the one time every four years when everyone in the world is willing to watch hockey is “disruptive.” It boggles the mind.
But I don’t own shares in a team. So I don’t get a say.
The players get a say, but they rolled over this last time around. The Beijing Games will occur just as the NHL is getting set for another lockout.
If the pros weren’t willing to take a principled stand when they had a few more years of labour security, it’s hard to imagine them doing it when they have none.
So we’re out of luck.
But the NHL – and all other sports businesses looking to turn a few million bucks profit into a few billion – ought to be wary. They can do as they like. That should be beyond dispute.
But greed is corrosive. It has a way of self-correcting over the long run.
We live at the high-water mark of professional sports. It’s never been as lucrative a concern as it is right now. You can feel the correction starting. It’s there in declining viewership numbers, bloated TV contracts and spiralling pay packets. It’s not a bubble, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be popped.
Fans don’t get a say in how leagues do their business, but they have an effective countermeasure to amend that behaviour. They can stop buying things.
And when that starts to happen – it already has – the leagues in turn can be upset that people have turned on them, but they shouldn’t be surprised.